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Advocates raise these concerns about Gainesville hotel regulations' impact on homeless community
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Gainesville City Schools Board of Education member Willie Mitchell speaks against the proposed restrictions, including limits on stays, for hotels Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, during a Gainesville Planning Board meeting at the Public Safety Complex. - photo by Scott Rogers

Gainesville’s proposed regulations on hotels drew concerns Tuesday evening from community members who said the rules would further disadvantage the city’s homeless population, which already faces a shortage of resources.

The proposed regulations would require hotels to keep detailed records of their guests, including their phone numbers and home addresses, and hand those over to the city upon request. Hotels would also need to get identification from all patrons before renting out a room, and that identification would have to be government-issued, such as a driver’s license, passport, military identification card or state identification card.

City police or code enforcement would have the authority to search business records or rooms at the hotels.

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Visitors to the Gainesville Planning Board meeting raise their hand to speak on the proposed restrictions, including limits on stays, for hotels. Proposed regulations in Gainesville would limit how long people can stay at hotels in the city and require hotels to keep detailed records of their guests and hand those over to the city upon request. - photo by Scott Rogers

The regulations would also limit stays at hotels to 15 consecutive days and stays at extended stay hotels to 30 days, although that matches up with the city’s current definitions for lodging services. The city’s current definition of lodging services is a facility that offers the same room for 15 or fewer days, while Gainesville currently defines extended stay lodging services as offering accommodations for more than 15 days and up to a month in the same room.

The proposal includes a new “maximum length of occupancy” section stating that lodging services are only allowed to offer rooms to patrons if they stay within those length-of-stay limits.

Hotel patrons would need to wait at least two weeks between stays. Patrons would not be legally responsible if they stay in a hotel past the limit, and the violation would be the responsibility of the hotel.

Existing hotels would be grandfathered in.

The Gainesville Planning and Appeals Board recommended approval of the regulations Tuesday, with members Carmen Delgado and Jane Fleming voting in opposition. The hotel regulations were included with several other code amendments, including restrictions on e-cigarette and hookah lounges.The board’s recommendation will go to the City Council for a final vote on Dec. 17.

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Mike Freeman speaks tot he Gainesville Planning Board on the proposed restrictions, including limits on stays, for hotels Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, at a meeting at the Public Safety Complex. The Gainesville City Council will have the final vote Dec. 17. - photo by Scott Rogers

Community members did not address other aspects of the code amendments during Tuesday’s public hearing. Everyone who spoke was in opposition to the hotel regulations, with many voicing concerns about how restricting hotels could affect the city’s homeless population.

Ursula Harris, a Gainesville City Schools social worker, said the school system has an estimated 341 homeless students, and over the past few years, the system has averaged about 60 students living in hotels and 60 in shelters.

The shelters in the city cannot always fit families’ needs or cannot take families in due to the shelters’ policies, Harris said.

“The requirements for shelters eliminate many of our families. … The age of their children will disqualify them from staying at the shelter. There are also difficulties for families who have students who have behavioral disabilities,” Harris said. “If you have young children and they are not school-age, you can’t stay at the shelter during the day, so that means you have to be out at McDonald’s or somewhere.”

Harris said students who are homeless can struggle in school, have difficulty forming connections and are more likely to drop out.

“As a community, we must ensure that we are not contributing to the instability of children and families,” Harris said.

Willie Mitchell, who serves on Gainesville’s school board, also said homelessness holds students back.

“It prohibits them from learning and getting the education that we’re trying to provide them,” Mitchell said. “Education is a civil right. … We talk about progress. I challenge anybody in this room to go get any one of those 341 kids and tell them that progress is being made.”

Michael Fisher, housing manager with Ninth District Opportunity, said the proposed regulations were an “unnecessary burden that is being put upon the poor and vulnerable population of this community.” The area already has a shortage of affordable housing, he said.

“These hotels are a final refuge for many of these individuals and families. Taking this away from them puts back a question to all of us,” Fisher said. “Where are we going to put them? Are we just going to give them freedom to live on the street? … Being poor is not a crime.”

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The Gainesville Planning and Appeals Board holds a public comment Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, on the proposed regulations in Gainesville would limit how long people can stay at hotels in the city and require hotels to keep detailed records of their guests and hand those over to the city upon request. - photo by Scott Rogers

The proposed regulations come a year after Gainesville banned “urban camping,” or living or sleeping in public spaces like parks or the side of the road. The city has also banned new homeless shelters in the midtown area, where many services are concentrated. Existing ones are allowed to stay.

Arturo Adame said he has seen the city take efforts to “get rid of” the homeless population, and he would like to see officials make more of an effort to find solutions. Adame, the former president of the Young Democrats of Hall County, spoke out against the urban camping regulations last year.

“I have not seen any real initiatives or any real plans for affordable housing to assist any of the homeless shelters that we have here. … If those (nonprofit) outlets were sufficient, (the homeless) would not be in these hotels,” he said.

Christine Osasu with Habitat for Humanity of Hall County said the regulations’ intention of making hotels safer for residents seemed positive, but hotel managers faced with costs of upgrades could pass on those costs to guests. 

“This can all make it difficult for an already struggling population,” she said.

Osasu said almost 300 homeless people have contacted Habitat in the past six months, but only one person qualified for its services. Obstacles like debt can prevent people from utilizing nonprofits, leaving them homeless, she said. 

“They’re urban camping. They’re living out here in tents in the cold. They’re living three and four and five and six to a bedroom. They are literally living in their car,” Osasu said. “If you go to Facebook Marketplace today, you can see people asking for tents because they don’t have anywhere to live.”

One hotel resident spoke firsthand about his difficulty leaving the hotel where he has been staying for two years. Donald Croupat said he works 65 hours a week at two jobs but has not been able to save for the startup costs and deposits to move into more permanent housing.

“What you’re planning is just going to hurt people like me,” he said.

Croupat was also concerned about why the city wants hotels to keep records of hotel guests for the city to review.

“Are we parolees? Are we prisoners?” he asked.

The planning board also heard from several local hotels Tuesday, with owners and managers telling the board that they often see guests who are in town for long-term projects for work in construction or other fields.

“Specialized companies come from all over the globe to work at Cargill, to work at Pilgrim’s Pride, to work at the Kubota facility,” Jay Singh, owner of The Guest Lodge, said. “These guys stay three, six, nine months at times. It’s just not practical for them to move hotels every 15 days.”

Hotel representatives said they would like to see stakeholders work together to find a solution. Kenneth Washington, general manager of the Fairfield Inn and Suites and the new TownePlace Suites, said business people from other states or countries might need to stay long-term, and his hotel recently hosted a family whose house had burned down.

“It would be beneficial if we could all sit down as a board and pick our brains and find out what is the best way we can execute this plan,” Washington said.

Matt Tate, the city’s deputy director of community and economic development, said the goal of the regulations was not to displace anyone but to keep hotels safe and address concerns such as fire hazards.

“There is a balance. This is something that, we understand the human side of this. … We have to find that happy (median), with the length of stay for an individual,” Tate said. “We don’t want to have anybody out in the streets, and there’s also life safety standards. We want to make sure that when they’re staying there, it’s safe.”

Tate said the limits on length of stay would not change under the proposal, as limits are included in the city’s definitions of lodging services. He said city staff would consider community members’ concerns and adjust the proposal before the City Council votes Dec. 17.

Kelvin Simmons, one of the planning board members, said hotels are not an ideal living situation, and he sees how some can struggle to find permanent housing due to barriers such as poor credit. He said the board was “not here to put anybody out on the street” and challenged nonprofits to work together to help those living in hotels.

“Everybody who lives in those hotels don’t want to be there,” he said.

Gainesville City Council

When: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 17

Where: Public Safety Complex, 701 Queen City Parkway

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